Tomorrow is the big day – the first installment of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is released on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow. And while we have to wait until December for part 2, The Desolation of Smaug, we can now journey back to Middle-earth to our heart’s content to see how the journey began…(don’t forget…you can use your Ultraviolet code from either version to access the Peter Jackson Q&A session and get the first sneak peek at The Desolation of Smaug on 3/24!)
(And I’ve discovered that I’ve probably been pronouncing Smaug wrong for many, many years…I’ve always just said “Smog”, but it seems it should be two syllables, something approximating “Sma-oohg”.)
First, let’s talk a bit about the feature…An Unexpected Journey covers approximately the first third of the book, up through the Gollum and goblin fights. From my own memory I thought it covered a lot more of the book, but it really is about a third. And it holds pretty true, at least from my memories of the book, which are probably about 15 years removed. It does start with a link-in to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in the form of the older Bilbo (played Ian Holm again) writing in the Red Book, while explaining to Frodo (Elijah Wood) about his big adventure, showing events that took place just prior to his birthday party but weren’t shown in the The Fellowship of the Ring. This serves as a gateway in to the story using the familiar characters, and then flashes back to the younger Bilbo (now played by Martin Freeman), just before he is about to receive quite a few unexpected visitors.
The book tends to be more lighthearted than The Lord of the Rings, and this holds true in the movie, with more evident humor. Whereas in the previous movies our only real exposure to the dwarves is Gimli, who did provide some comical lines but was otherwise a serious character, we meet a number of dwarves – 13, in fact, and they come in all shapes and sizes and temperaments, from the quite serious (especially from Thorin Oakenshield, played masterfully by Richard Armitage) to the comical. They sing songs while they freely toss dishes around, much to the chagrin of Bilbo. And the humor stays throughout the movie but without damaging the seriousness. It does, however, play much differently than the previous movies.
And of course, it wouldn’t be a Peter Jackson Middle-earth film without the spectacular visuals offered by on-location shooting on the pristine New Zealand landscape. However, you might be surprised what was real and what wasn’t – be sure to check out the special features – more on that later.
And like the previous films, there is plenty of use of visual effects and computer-generated imagery – in fact, they may have completely outdone it in this film. Especially with the big underground battle with the goblins.
Another Tolkien-ism – originally, Tolkien basically used orc and goblin interchangeably, as one was a translation of the other. However the movie seems to show that the goblins are at least a different breed, as they do not really resemble the orcs from the previous movies. And they are 100% CGI in this film. In fact, the combination of all this CGI along with the completely improbable fighting (and similarly in the troll scenes) was for me the only lowlight in the film.
As for the Blu-ray release, it’s all about the extras, isn’t it? While this isn’t the giant compendiums like the Lord of the Rings releases, it does include a fair amount of video material, mostly in the form of Peter Jackson’s video blog entries, previously seen online, but available here all together and showing all facets of the production – and here you’ll see a lot more about the locations (and what they had to go through), the visual effects, and what the dwarves do with their downtime among other things. I found these insights into the production quite fascinating. Add in another short featurette about New Zealand and a number of trailers for the movie and games, you get over two hours of additional material. Interestingly, no commentary audio track is included.
Given the video blogs covers pretty much the whole production through to the end (at least for principal photography), I wonder what will be featured for the releases of the second and third movies…